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  • First and Second Person Pronouns as Bound Variables
  • Hotze Rullmann

Déchaine and Wiltschko (2002) argue that, in English, 1st and 2nd person pronouns belong to a different syntactic category than 3rd person pronouns. One of their main arguments is the claim that English 1st and 2nd person pronouns cannot be used as bound variables, unlike 3rd person pronouns.1 In this squib, I discuss data showing that English 1st and 2nd person pronouns actually do allow bound variable interpretations. [End Page 159] In one set of cases, the pronoun's person and number features appear to have no semantic import; these examples seem to involve purely syntactic agreement between the pronoun and its antecedent. A second set of cases points in the opposite direction; in these examples, the person and number features of the variable do play a crucial role in the semantics. The facts discussed in this squib therefore raise interesting theoretical questions about the nature of pronominal agreement and the semantics of the features person and number.2

1 Person and Number Agreement

Kratzer (1998) discusses examples such as (1), which she attributes to Irene Heim.

(1) Only I got a question that I understood.

(1) has a reading on which the second occurrence of the pronoun I functions as a bound variable. On this reading, the sentence expresses the proposition that the speaker of the sentence is the only person who has the property λx[x got a question that x understood]. Clearly, on [End Page 160] this interpretation the second occurrence of the pronoun is a bound variable, and not a deictic pronoun that refers to the speaker. (In this squib, I will use the term deictic in the sense that philosophers of language use the term indexical (Kaplan 1989); that is, an expression is deictic if its reference is determined by the utterance context.) The person feature of the second occurrence of I in (1) does not seem to play a role in its semantic interpretation; it is there merely because of agreement with its antecedent only I. Kratzer proposes that pronouns like this start out in the derivation as "zero" pronouns, whose agreement features are filled in later, at PF. The general point that the person/ number features of these pronouns are not semantically interpreted is independent of this specific implementation, however.

Bound variable readings can also be observed in examples such as (2a-b), in which plural 1st and 2nd person pronouns are bound by floating quantifiers.


  1. a. We all think we're smart.

  2. b. You (guys) all think you're smart.

Just like (1), these sentences are ambiguous between a variable and a nonvariable interpretation of the pronoun. The nonvariable reading of (2a) can be paraphrased as 'Each of us thinks that we are smart', which is represented quasi-formally in (3).

(3) ∀x[xWEx thinks that WE are smart]

Here, WE stands for the intended referent of the 1st person plural pronoun in the utterance context, some salient plurality that includes the speaker. On this reading, the second occurrence of we is deictic, just like the first occurrence. More important for present purposes is the bound variable reading of (2a), which can be paraphrased as 'Each of us thinks that he/she is smart'.

(4) ∀x[xWEx thinks that x is smart]

On this reading, the second occurrence of we functions as an individual variable that is bound by the universal quantifier, and not as a deictic pronoun.

In the bound variable reading of (2a-b), it is not just the pronoun's person feature that is irrelevant for its semantic interpretation, but also its plural number. The plural pronoun in the bound variable reading of (2a-b) represents a variable ranging over individuals rather than pluralities, as can clearly be seen in examples like (5) and (6).


  1. a. We each/all think we're the smartest person in the world.

  2. b. #We're the smartest person in the world.


  1. a. Al and I both believed we were going to be elected president.

  2. b. #We were going to be elected president.

In these sentences, the VP in the embedded clause can normally only...


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